It’s a painstaking process to shepherd a new technology from the original idea in someone’s head to an end-user’s hands. A new, patented sheet-metal-forming technology that could cut costs and reduce product delivery time at Ford is somewhere in the middle of that process.
After four years of research at the Ford Research and Innovation Center, F3T (Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology) is “laboratory-ready,” Jim deVries, the company’s Global Manager of Materials and Manufacturing Research, told AEI. “It’s still a learning exercise.” (Watch video here.)
F3T involves two slightly offset styluses applying pressure to opposite sides of a sheet metal blank as they move along a prescribed path in unison across it. CNC technology and robots are used to guide and control the styluses against the sheet metal, which is clamped around its edges inside an enclosure. The clamps are reconfigurable for different sheet dimensions.
It could be some time, deVries said, before F3T is used for actual parts prototyping, and an even longer time, if ever, for series-production applications. That’s because the process itself is slow; the time advantage over the conventional technology—stamping—comes from the latter’s upstream complications. Ford will get a better handle on how fast it can transition the technology out of the lab and into productive use through its participation in a three-year, $7.04 million project grant recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Boeing, Northwestern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Penn State Erie, The Behrend College are collaborators in the technology.
If it can be developed as hoped, F3T would reduce vehicle development time by providing a faster way to make prototype sheet-metal parts. It’s envisioned that F3T could deliver a part within three business days from the time the CAD model of the part is received. The conventional method involves creation of dies. With F3T, “you don’t have to wait for a die to be designed, fabricated, shipped, tested, and placed, which could take months,” said deVries.
In its use of CAE models and tool paths, F3T is similar to rapid prototyping such as additive manufacturing, except that no material is added or subtracted. With F3T, about one day is spent creating a path for the styluses from the CAD data. Two days are needed to form the part in the machine.
Much of the innovation to date is in the design and integration of the machine system, process development and optimization, and the creation of tool paths from CAD data to ensure dimensional accuracy, surface finish quality, and faster forming time, deVries said.
The stylus heads are between 6 and 20 mm (0.2 and 0.8 in) in size, and they move around the blank at a rate of only about 80 linear mm/s (3.1 in/s) with the current system at Ford Research Lab, so they don’t cover a whole lot of ground compared to a conventional stamping (not including die creation and delivery time). Ford’s goal is to increase F3T stylus head speed to 200 mm/s (7.9 in/s).
Another goal is to apply the technology to larger parts, such as hoods and other body panels. It’s being evaluated now at Ford only on parts with maximum dimensions of 450 x 450 mm (18 x 18 in). Ford has just one F3T machine, purposely designed for research and development.
Applying heat and electric current as forming aids will be considered as the project moves forward, but that could be tricky as potential heat-induced distortion of the blank is a major challenge to increased stylus head speed, said deVries. For now, the styluses apply only force.
The styluses do not operate in exactly mirror-like fashion; rather, they can be offset in a variety of ways. “The amount of offset depends on the shape you want,” he said, adding that it’s unclear as of now how deep a draw the technology can deliver and how far the technology in general can go. “Talk to me in three years.”